The plans, which are still being developed, would establish online support groups to connect people with similar lifestyles and ailments, according to Reuters. Facebook would also develop a series of apps, some of which would presumably monitor your workout and other aspects of your health.
Online support groups for diseases like Parkinson's and celiac have been around almost since the dawn of the Internet itself. Facebook, too, has all manner of user-created communities to address health care issues. But Facebook may be betting that by creating its own official versions, the company can keep users more engaged with the site and perhaps even improve health outcomes in a small but measurable way.
There's also a lot of money floating around the healthcare industry — an estimated $3 trillion worth — and no doubt Facebook hopes to capture a slice of that market. Health records are so valuable, security experts say, that hackers will pay up to 20 times more for a person's medical record on the black market than for a stolen credit card number.
All this raises questions about the security of your health data as it's increasingly held not by medical professionals like doctors and hospitals, but by tech companies. Moves is one example. Apple's HealthKit, with its ability to collect and centralize health information across apps, is another. Some lawmakers have urged tech companies to prevent the sale of personal health information to third parties and to require that users explicitly opt-in to any information sharing.
"Including provisions like these in privacy policies should be a no-brainer for tech companies," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) told The Washington Post last month.
There are important distinctions between the kind of health data these companies dabble in and the kind your doctor holds. The former isn't held to the same legal standards as the latter. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, restricts how patients data can be used. But those regulations typically doesn't apply to casual health trackers on smartphones, for example, because consumers are often the ones generating the data — and by using these services, they've often already agreed to share their data. There are effectively "zero" protections for consumers who give up that data, Deborah Peel, executive director of the Austin-based nonprofit Patient Privacy Rights, told my colleague Andrea Peterson in May.
"This is really, really a privacy nightmare," Peel said.
Facebook won't be selling its users' health data to pharmaceutical marketers, according to Reuters. Still, consumers may find themselves torn between their appetite for new, tech-enabled health care services and giving even more data to a company that has been criticized for its privacy practices in the past.
According to Reuters, Facebook is aware of the potential concerns. Its solution? Scrub the health services of Facebook branding:
The company is considering rolling out its first health application quietly and under a different name, a source said. Market research commissioned by Facebook found that many of its users were unaware that photo-service Instagram is Facebook-owned, the source said.
A spokesperson for Facebook declined to comment, saying the company doesn't respond to rumor and speculation.